In N.H., a Chinese school from scratch
CHESTER, N.H. — On a warm August morning, workers fastened Chinese and American flags onto makeshift flagpoles in a field.
Chinese students, some as young as 10 and all clad in yellow and black uniforms, hovered around rows of plastic chairs as a red banner bearing English words and Chinese characters unfurled. Well-dressed Chinese adults filed into the front row for a teary goodbye ceremony for the 37 students returning home.
The ceremony marked the culmination of the inaugural program at Busche Academy, a Chinese private school that bought an empty college campus last year in this town 50 miles north of Boston. The school hopes to bring as many as 300 Chinese students here, starting as soon as next year.
In the Wild West of international education, the school represents a new frontier: It is one of the country’s first Chinese-owned schools, catering to a skyrocketing demand for a US high school education among Chinese.
The flood of Chinese students makes it harder for them to get into high schools here. US schools want to accept students from many countries to balance diversity on their campuses. The schools also worry about application fraud and standardized-test cheating, which have hurt the reputation of Chinese students.
Jiahui Education, the owner of the campus in Chester, seeks to overcome these obstacles by founding its own school. The independence will allow the company to manage its own curriculum and living situation, a concern for many Chinese families wary of host families.
“We find that particularly with boarding schools, it’s too competitive,” said Hamilton Gregg, an American education consultant in Beijing who follows industry trends. “Their families are looking to go [to the United States] no matter what.”
There are 1.1 million international students studying at US colleges, high schools, and vocational schools — three quarters of them from Asia. New Hampshire’s foreign student population grew this year at the second-fastest rate in the country, behind Arkansas. Massachusetts has 65,000 international students. New Hampshire has 5,444.
At the August ceremony in Chester, it was apparent what motivated students and parents. Not everybody spoke English, but they all knew two words: MIT and Harvard.
“That is the top university and also my dream,” one elementary school student said about Harvard.
But the company’s plan is off to a rocky start. The school must build a larger dining room and revise its expansion plans to meet local building and safety codes before it can host more students.
In addition, Busche Academy cannot issue diplomas because it is not accredited by the state. At least for now, it will function like a study-abroad campus for Chinese elementary and middle schoolers.
In the meantime, the company’s local director, Lei Wang, is exploring partnerships with nearby private schools that he hopes could educate students living on the Jiahui campus.
The headmaster of nearby Pinkerton Academy said he met with Wang but didn’t come away with hopes for an immediate partnership.
“If anything, the impression our group left with was concern over the lack of preparation, communication, and substantive educational planning,” said headmaster Griffin Morse.
Still, Wang is undeterred. The company markets itself aggressively, and a glossy Jiahui brochure already touts the American partnerships it is trying to strike.
Chinese entrepreneurs founded the Jiahui company in 2003 in the northern port city of Dalian, about 200 miles from the North Korean border. It has 4,000 students at six schools in mainland China, from preschool to high school, according to a brochure. Students pay $6,000 annual tuition or $10,000 to be part of the international track, plus an extra $2,000 for a summer program in the United States, Wang said.
Most students in China attend free public school, so a US campus could help the company market itself to parents.
The pomp at the campus in Chester that August morning was not only a celebration of the summer program — it also accompanied Wang’s attempt to persuade the board members seated in that front row to invest more money in the venture.
Right now, the 70-acre campus in Chester is mostly empty. Grass grows a bit too tall and weeds sprout from concrete cracks. Buildings, some dating from the 1790s, are for the most part unoccupied.
Besides the new dining hall and kitchen, Wang envisions an expanded classroom building and maybe a new student center and gymnasium.
He believes the campus will open in fall 2017 and in a sense, he needs that to happen. Board members want to see results. “Only after our program is successful will they invest more money,” he said.
Just as the school itself is unconventional, so was Wang’s path to becoming its principal. He said he came to the United States in 1991 to attend Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2015, the chairman of the Jiahui board of directors, a longtime friend of Wang’s, asked him to find a US campus.
“I like education, so I said OK,” Wang said.
The company preferred New England because of its proximity to top colleges.
The Jiahui campus previously belonged to Chester College, a small liberal arts school that went bankrupt in 2012. The Chinese company bought the campus for $1.5 million, local land records show.
Other Chinese and American companies have also launched businesses to meet the demand from Chinese students, without actually opening schools.
In West Hartford, Conn., a company called Weiming has been trying to purchase a former University of Connecticut satellite campus, where it would house students and enroll them in local public schools.
In Rhode Island, a company called Roosevelt Academy bought a former nursing home and turned it into a dormitory that offers after-school programs for students who live there and attend local private high schools.
This summer, classes at the Jiahui campus took place in its largest dormitory. Walls were covered with hints of the way students filled their days — a phonics chart in English about how to pronounce the long “a” sound, a plant chart with branches of white pine and huckleberry glued on, maps of the planetary system, a poem called “My Summer in America.”
Many students were amazed with the clear blue sky in New Hampshire. They are used to the polluted smog of Dalian.
“I don’t miss my mom because it’s so nice,” said Moven Mao, a 10-year-old student at the ceremony, as he clutched a piece of notebook paper that he asked his teachers to sign with goodbye messages. He hopes to return.
Gregg, the education consultant in Beijing, expects to see many more such Chinese schools open across the country.
“There’s a mania about America in terms of ‘it’s the best in education,’ ” he said. “Build it and they will come. And they will.”